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Manager: "It's a secret, so keep it under your head, but the most popular robot always wins."
Have you ever gotten into an argument where you have to defend your beloved Local Sports Team's honor and superiority against the "merits" of that honorless and inept Opposing Sports Team? Time consuming and pointless debates ensue (they really should just accept that that Local Sports Team is better and move on with their lives). If things get really bad, you can always wait for both teams to play against each other to settle the issue.
There's just one problem. Your team is in Major League Rugby, and theirs is a peewee soccer team. And they win.
This isn't the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits beating an Evil Empire, they don't have The Ace or Mary Sue leading them to a last second win by exploiting a Weaksauce Weakness or using a Drama-Preserving Handicap, they're normal and otherwise mundane. They are however far more popular and sell merchandise far better than your team. And somehow, much like The Power of Friendship, their Popularity Power gives them that added boost to take on teams far, far, far above their league that should logically crush them like so many naive hopes and dreams under tax returns.
Comic Books tend to fall to this a lot, much like an Ensemble Darkhorse but canonized in media. The super hero in question is usually the kind that stars in Wolverine Publicity or is a Badass Normal in a team of supers. Authors then give them Power Creep, Power Seep until they can take on anyone and win without flinching, or at least won't lose, to someone who should easily beat them. The means to this are usually liberal applications of Plot Induced Stupidity to the opponent, a few Contrived Coincidences to help the hero (a fire extinguisher near a fire villain), or Joker Immunity to make a popular villain's outright defeat impossible.
Compare Pandering to the Base, Wolverine Publicity, Spotlight-Stealing Squad, Power Creep, Power Seep, Running the Asylum. Related to Joker Immunity and Contractual Immortality since some characters will never get caught/KilledOffForReal because of their popularity.
- Go back and watch Return of the Jedi, before Boba Fett's popularity rocketed. Boba has his gun taken out and then gets knocked over like a wuss by a rookie Jedi. He is then propelled into the side of Jabba's sailbarge when a blind man set off his jetpack. By accident. He then rolls right into the Sarlacc's mouth. The final humiliation is granted by the Sarlacc letting out a satisfied belch after swallowing him. Now compare him to the man who, among other things, went head to head with Darth Vader in a Star Wars Expanded Universe story and came out of it alive.
- It gets even better, in another one he shoots his way out of the sarlacc like some sort of FPS player character, said sarlacc is nearly dead now.
- Taken to extremes in the pre-Empire novels, where he actually almost killed Mace Windu (aka Samuel-Motherfucking -Jackson) in revenge for his dad's death in Attack of the Clones, when he was no older than thirteen years old.
- It should be noted that Lucas had no idea Boba was so popular when Return of the Jedi was made. He confesses that Boba would have gotten a much better send-off if he had known.
- The Green Hornet: Kato being revamped into Hypercompetent Sidekick taken Up to Eleven was obviously inspired by Bruce Lee's increased popularity since playing the character.
- Sylar from Heroes. He's cheated death a half a dozen times and reached belief-defying heights of Joker Immunity because the writers seem in love with him. Not only does he have a myriad of powers (which he can increase as the plot demands, though not without some justification) he's survived two near fatal attacks (one of which he was originally planned to die from), escaped imprisonment three times, and Elle completely misses him twice with electric blasts when she nailed fast flyer West in one shot. In short, he's a Villain Sue.
- In Angel, "Destiny" had Angel and Spike in a titanic, epic brawl in an episode sometimes labeled a 'fan dream.' Spike often leads fan polls in popularity with Angel right behind him. Remember, Badass Decay only happened because he was a fan favorite. Originally the episode was to have Angel win, because it is his show, but the writers realised that they were missing a golden opportunity to drive home Angel's loss of motivation. Once Angel got back his groove in later episodes he would soundly beat Spike in a normal fight, even once as a puppet. Although in fairness, Spike was paralysed with laughter for that one. It's also worth noting that Spike actually beat Buffy in a fight once, which Angel never did.
- Pretty much most of the focus of the Angel series was that he was well-known and going to be a popular player in the apocalypse. But on whose side? Turns out he was well in the midst of it already, who said the apocalypse couldn't drag out over decades?.
- In a bit of an odd example, Iron Chef America and Iron Chef Bobby Flay. Now, he doesn't -win- an unfair amount, but he gets -chosen- more than every other chef in the show by a huge margin because he's the most popular Food Network star in the series. Basically, the episodes in which he's chosen get a lot more views than any other chef's, so Food Network has him picked all the time.
- Jerry Springer didn't win Dancing With the Stars, but he got a lot farther than his dancing talent alone would have carried him. It got to the point that he actually asked his fans to stop voting for him, as he only appeared on the show to learn to dance and was tired of coming back.
- This is also arguably the reason why Jerry Rice won out over Stacy Keibler. Many people thought that Keibler was the most talented dancer on the show.
- Professional Wrestling uses this trope to full advantage of course, with most wrestlers' positions on the cards determined entirely by how popular they are. However, most pro wrestling promoters aren't above subverting the trope, whether it's to launch a new character, keep things unpredictable, or simply to give the fans a happy moment as the dominant Heel gets beaten by the lowest of the low.
- One of the most well-known subversions was WCW wrestler Bill Goldberg, who, in his first match, got the standard Jobber treatment—no music, no televised entrance, no flashy costume, just a quick announcement of name and hometown during his opponent's much flashier entrance. And then he won that match. And then 171 more. By the end of that streak, he had his own Popularity Power going.
- Another storyline involved a WWF Jobber losing a few matches to better-known wrestlers under names like "The Cannonball Kid", "The Good Luck Kid", "The Kamikaze Kid", etc. until finally, now simply known as "The Kid", he scored an upset victory over Razor Ramon. This earned him the name "The 1-2-3 Kid", as his entire gimmick was that he started getting upset victories, winning 2 more times against Razor Ramon, then beating other top heels as they came out of the woodwork to put the kid "in his place". Razor actually made a Heel Face Turn simply by taking his losses in good humor and taking the kid under his wing. Eventually. As a side note, said kid was Sean Waltman, the wrestler later known as Syxx (in the nWo) and X-Pac (in D Generation X)
- And then there was the famous Barry Horowitz, whose 800-strong losing streak came to an abrupt end when he beat Skip of the Bodydonnas, rolling Skip up for a pinfall when he stopped to do push-ups in the middle of the match. He'd go on to get two more wins, one more against Skip and one against Hakushi, and again Hakushi was able to turn face by taking his loss in good spirits (of course, Hakushi's face turn was somewhat less successful than Razor's, as he went from the enigmatic Badass "White Angel of Death" to a Funny Foreigner).
- ECW did this with a guy by the name of Mikey Whipwreck, who would take vicious beatings in the ring without getting in a lick of offense. Eventually, the fans started sympathizing with him, and started to root for Mikey to win—and when, as a surprise substitute for Terry Funk in a match for the ECW Tag Team Championship (with tag team partner Cactus Jack), Mikey not only landed an offensive maneuver against his opponents (The Public Enemy), but managed to get the pinfall and win the match, making him even more beloved amongst the fans.
- WWE tried repeating it with Colin Delaney, formerly Colin Olsen of CHIKARA. However, the angle got abandoned about a month or so in.
- "The Brooklyn Brawler" Steve Lombardi, a man whose name has become synonymous with Jobber, holds a victory over Triple H.
- The Futurama example in the page quote, obviously.
- On the non-subverted side of the fence, there's Hulk Hogan. And Hulk Hogan always, always won, thanks to "the power of the Hulkamaniacs", even when faced with somebody who was bigger, badder, or just plain better. This went on for most of the '80s, and the beginning of the '90s, across two different wrestling promotions, before it got stale enough for a Face Heel Turn to even be considered.
- There's the half-straight / half-inverted example of John Cena, particularly from his WWE Championship win in 2005 until his return from an injury in 2008. The vast majority of the crowd (i.e. the men) absolutely loathed Cena and would call for his head at every turn... but due to Cena's popularity with women and children, he went on to constantly overcome the odds of more popular Heels en route to one title run that lasted just three months shy of a year (and with only a three week break between his next one that lasted another five months) and one that went just over a month past a full year and even that was only ended due to aforementioned injury.
- In a Meta Example during the 1990s, The Undertaker had his urn stolen and melted down by Ted DiBiase's henchman, Kama Mustafa. Taker turned to his Creatures Of The Night to give him the strength to beat Kama in a casket match. Being one of the most popular wrestlers in the WWF, he had no trouble getting enough.
- You can always tell when a Faux Action Girl face Diva is starting to get really popular with the fans: she'll start getting out-of-nowhere victories over heel Divas who are bigger and/or a great deal more athletic. Sometimes this will be due to other face wrestlers helping the good girl out (which is, of course, "cheating" when done by the heels), but at other times it's just due to the heel Diva's stupidity and/or overconfidence. Which is how Stacy Keibler, Maria Kanellis, and Kelly Kelly (who didn't become a true Action Girl until about 2010) were able to gain victories over Molly Holly, Melina Perez, and Beth Phoenix, respectively.
- Subverted with the debut of Brie Bella on SmackDown, who was immediately put into a match against former Women's Champion Victoria. Brie at first played the part of a Lovable Coward, hiding from Victoria under the ring only to magically reappear from out from the under the other side of the ring, slip behind Victoria, and roll her up for a pin. Yes, in her very first match! Then it was eventually revealed that the girl who'd pinned Victoria was Brie's twin sister, Nikki, who had switched places with her in the middle of the match. (And then, double-subverted in that both of the Bella Twins remained faces for a time).
- A variation on this frequently crops up in licensed roleplaying games: characters from the original canon will be given game statistics built on the presumption that such characters are the absolute best specimens of their particular niche. What begins as a hope for insurance against potential Mary Sue Player Characters running roughshod over the continuity can easily become ludicrous when compared to the game's own stated benchmarks for mundane characters, resulting in situations where such individuals couldn't actually be challenged/threatened by scenarios faithfully reproducing their own adventures. What makes it even worse are the Game Breaker powers and ridiculously inflated abilities designers will give canon characters that are often direct violations of the rules. Players who see these stats and abilities can rather reasonably demand why their characters can't attain the same levels of power, which can put a DM in an awkward position.
- Subverted often with those same characters. While they often have overinflated levels in the skills and abilities that they demonstrate on the show, they are usually so poorly built (as are most pregenerated "example" characters) that they cannot actually handle the canon adventures they are described as undertaking successfully, nor would they last very long at all in a real campaign. Nor would any PC with a mind to clear out the overabundance of Mary Sue characters have much trouble in doing so, even at a drastically lower level.
- The Star Trek RPG from FASA clearly assumed that not only was the Enterprise the most successful ship of its class in service, but that every position on the ship was filled by the single most competent individual in that field to be found in Starfleet. One must feel sorry for the security chief of any other vessel by comparison ...
- White Wolf's Street Fighter RPG. Theoretically based on the arcade game franchise, a by-the-book starting campaign is more about the role roughly "real world compliant" martial artists would have in a world with Street Fighter characters in it (i.e. window dressing.)
- Averted in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel RPGs. All major characters are statted out, and they are indeed much more experienced than the PCs. However, the character's stats and xp are tracked for each individual season. Want to have Buffy on par with your group? Just set it around the first season.
- Even then, the game gives you a choice of character type between Heroes/Champions, with awesome stats, and White Hats/Investigators, with worse stats but more Drama Points to begin with plus a lower cost for more Drama Points. There is also a third option, Experienced Hero, which gives you better stats than the Hero and the Drama Point use of the White Hat. The Experienced Hero is designed for a whole party to use together, for balance, to reach the power level of a slightly more experienced canon character, although still not quite as experienced as the canon builds.
- A particularily Egregious example would be R. Talsorian's Bubblegum Crisis RPG. The Knight Sabers were built to ludicrous levels; Priss was superhumanly strong and could survive a hit from a 120mm cannon without her Hard Suit or any other protection.
- Many roleplaying games use builds of the creator's own PCs as background for their publishing the setting. Having been played for many years, they obviously reach extremely high levels. But, having been played for that long, they usually are pretty good at surviving a normal campaign or fending off lower level PCs.
- Elminster is obviously the most powerful of these for the Forgotten Realms, although most of the major FR characters are subjected to it in one form or another.
- Palladiums Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG had an elaborate character creation system that provided rules for creating mutant squirrels, Moose, Housecats, or whatever. But the title characters were impossible to create according to the rules. Their Ninja Skills were fine, but their mutations were more advantageous than was possible for Player Characters.
- The Revised Core rulebook of the D20 Star Wars Roleplaying Game gives all the main characters average stats. Coupled with the fact that they are poorly built, this actually means that the Luke (circa Episode IV) of the core books is weaker than many heroes on their third or fourth adventures. Fortunately, later supplements improved the NPC quality, bringing the heroes to an even level with the average PC.
- Luke wasn't that powerful, though. Circa episode IV, he barely even knew how to use the Force, had only some casual pilot experience under his belt, and was really just on his first adventure himself.
- This is also somewhat a backlash from the WEG D6 version of the rules, which gave all the canon characters -incredibly- pumped up stats. Han Solo, who is shown in the movies as being a pretty bad liar ('We're, uh, all fine here. How're you?') is given 8d or so in lying for instance. And 8d being basically one of the best people in a galactic sector or such. Their other stats are just as inflated. (Starting PCs for the record could start out at 5d-6d). Their focus skills were even worse. Someone once added it up and decided it'd take over a decade to get as high as Han Solo or Luke.
- Starting with Dungeons & Dragons 3.0, dragons are given "Challenge Ratings" that are lower than usual for their power level. Thus, if the dungeon master follows the challenge rating system, dragons are always more powerful than whatever else the player characters are facing. The game designers state that this was intentional, so that encounters with dragons always feel special.
- Zero somehow pushed his way from Mauve Shirt status to the co-protagonist role - even after being killed!
- Subversion. Word of God says Zero's design was originally intended to be Mega Man X but was made into a side character Ensemble Darkhorse due to fear of Executive Meddling and They Changed It, Now It Sucks. Meaning this instance of the trope was actually the Unintentional Backup Plan that allowed the creator's original setup to happen all along.
- In the Touhou Project series, Cirno started out as not only being one of the weakest characters but being famous for it within the fandom. She's the second stage boss in the first game in which she appears and the stage one miniboss in the next game (making her the weakest boss in that entire game). However, her popularity propelled her to become a playable character in two later games. Her storyline in Hisoutensoku seems to put her as being as being only somewhat weaker than the main characters, putting her at well above average for the setting.
- She now has her own game. Interestingly, however, she's depicted as being a lot less powerful than fans assume and even somewhat below her Fighting Game incarnation. Most of the foes she fights are fairies (of which she is already the strongest, meme notwithstanding) and she gets roughed up in the process of defeating the Extra Boss, a first for the series PCs. At least she can shoot straight now.
- Leonhardt Raglen in Agarest Senki is the protagonist of the first generation only. However, his storyline, his awesome stats, his fairly heroic status, and his badassery earned him the number one spot as to who the fans want to bring back in Agarest Senki 2 where he suddenly can pull off flash steps and Implausible Fencing Powers.
- And then he does it again with Compile Heart's new game, Mugen Souls.
- In the Dungeons series (Dungeons and Dungeons: The Dark Lord), this is a game mechanic. Essentially, the more prestige you have, the better stats you have, and the more you entertain the adventurers, the more resources they give upon their deaths.
- In the original Mobile Suit Gundam Char was barely able to harm the original Gundam with his modified Zaku II and was an even fight with Amuro when his skills were only half-decent. In Dynasty Warriors: Gundam's original story he battles some of Gundams most powerful suits and pilots(including some who beat him in the Hyaku Shiki) in that Zaku II and often times has the upperhand which is made all the more ridiculous by Amuro and the original Gundam barely able to go toe-to-toe with many of these people.
- In Bob and George it's stated that fan popularity or "Star Power", like the plastic wrap force fields for main characters, means a character will not die. This is very literal, as when Bob tried to attack briefly appearing, but popular Metool-D2 he spontaneously started generating a force field. When Star Man tried this, it was shown that Ran can counter this with "the taint of communism":
Starman: Oh no, I've been blacklisted!
- In a later comic, again with Star Man, Star Man declared that he knew about Popularity Power and how it would allow him to defeat anyone. However, he immediately forfeits when he finds out he's slated to battle against the bigger Fan Favorite, Shadow Man.
- GameFAQs has the Character Battles which seemingly pit two characters against each other and have users vote for the winner. While there is some debate going on, popularity ultimately decides the winner. This is sometimes ridiculed to the degree it's practically a subversion of itself, such as a Tetris piece winning the contest.
- And now sister site Gamespot is doing the same. Though it has become a subversion of itself with heavy interference, first from 4chan who managed to have the Bubble Bobble beat Master Chief and Sonic the Hedgehog before bowing down to Samus, and later from Valve themselves, who pushed a massive rally call for Gordon Freeman, which went to... well, it allowed Valve to proclaim this: "There are other great game heroes, and we're gonna let you play with them, but Gordon Freeman is THE BEST GAME HERO OF ALL TIME"
- Subverted to hell and back in the Earth 2706 universe. A-list characters are relegated to guest star appearances, while C- and D-list heroes, and even more so villains, are given the spotlight.
- Oddly enough, this is actually one of Danny's enemies' powers! Ember Mclain is a ghost whose power grow exponentially the more people cheer her name. In fact, the only way Danny could initially defeat her was by having Tucker sing on international TV... an act so horrifying it de-hypnotized the populace of the world almost instantly.